Discovering Modernism’s Neglected Spur

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Discovering Modernism’s Neglected Spur

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 7, 2017

Discovering Modernism’s Neglected Spur

A review of "Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, through October 4, 2017. 

Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, once wrote that “those who love art or spiritual freedom cannot remain neutral… when one kind of art or another is dogmatically asserted to be the only funicular up Parnassus.”

There are, of course, many twists and turns in the history of art, yet the line that runs up Modernist Mountain has often been mapped as a single track: Impressionism, to post-Impressionism, to Cubism, on through the many pictorial innovations of the last century. In this analogy Symbolism, an idealist route of the 1890s, may be modernism’s neglected spur—and an impresario named Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918) its most colorful conductor.

“Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897,” an intoxicating exhibition now at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, re-creates the short-lived exhibition series that Péladan mounted in Paris at the height of the Symbolist moment. Organized by Guggenheim senior curator Vivien Greene, the show includes 40 works that once appeared in Péladan’s invitational exhibitions. The artists assembled, like the history of the Salons themselves, will be new to almost everyone, but these Salons were once a sensation, encapsulating the anxious mood of the fin-de-siècle and influencing the art of the 20th century.

‘The Dawn of Labor (L’aurore du travail)’ (c. 1891), by Charles Maurin PHOTO: YVES BRESSON, MUSŽE DÕART MODERNE ET CONTEMPORAIN, FRANCE

‘The Dawn of Labor (L’aurore du travail)’ (c. 1891), by Charles Maurin PHOTO: YVES BRESSON, MUSŽE DÕART MODERNE ET CONTEMPORAIN, FRANCE

Infused with spiritualist mysticism, versed in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, and set to the soundtrack of Richard Wagner, Symbolism championed art, literature and music of many styles—all art with a capital A, with fidelity to nature subordinated to the expression of the artist’s mood. In “Mystical Symbolism,” the outward appearances can seem anything but modern. Artists such as Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau and Ferdinand Hodler looked past what they considered the mundane observations of the Impressionists to draw on the Old Master styles of Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

Carlos Schwabe’s poster for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix (1892) PHOTO: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/LICENSED BY SCALA/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Carlos Schwabe’s poster for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix (1892) PHOTO: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART/LICENSED BY SCALA/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Péladan embodied this same rear-guard sensibility. He styled himself an Assyrian “Sar,” or king, and named his group Rose+Croix after the esoteric and arguably fictitious Rosicrucian Order of 17th-century origin. Through his Salons he sought work that illustrated dreams, allegory and myth “to restore in all its splendor the cult of the Ideal based on Tradition with Beauty as its means.” The story of Orpheus, that original tragic artist, is a recurring theme here, and maidens abound in various stages of déshabillé. The exhibition is most revelatory for the many artists, from Charles Maurin to Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop to Alphonse Osbert, it brings to light. The dream-like lithograph by Carlos Schwabe, commissioned to promote the first Salon, is a highlight of fin-de-siécle printmaking.

The Guggenheim exhibition hinges on the personality of Péladan, and “Mystical Symbolism” includes portraits of the artistic leader. This author, critic and Catholic occultist employed his imperious bearing and forked beard to maximum effect: Especially striking is Jean Delville’s messianic figure in choir dress and Alexandre Séon’s priestly golden profile.

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau’s ‘Orpheus in Hades (Orphée)’ (1897) PHOTO: CLAUDE ALMODOVAR/COLLECTION DU MUSEE DES BEAUX-ARTS, MARSEILLE

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau’s ‘Orpheus in Hades (Orphée)’ (1897) PHOTO: CLAUDE ALMODOVAR/COLLECTION DU MUSEE DES BEAUX-ARTS, MARSEILLE

In her red-velvet-bound catalog, Ms. Greene explains how the Salon de la Rose+Croix “privileged a hermetic and numinous vein of Symbolism, which reigned during the 1890s when Christian and occult practices were often intertwined in a quest for mysticism undertaken by many who yearned for a renewed centrality of faith. The Salon aimed to transcend the mundane and material for a higher spiritual life—the movement’s holy grail.”

Ms. Greene’s focused and illuminating exhibition, which goes on to Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the fall, continues the New York museum’s commitment to exploring modernism’s less trodden paths. But equally important, the museum shows respect for the art and ideas on view. With deep red walls and plush blue couches, Ms. Greene and her designers have done much to establish this exhibition as a Rosicrucian-like art-filled precinct. The addition of recorded music in the galleries, normally a distraction in museum settings, here completes the transformation of the space and signals the relevance of music to Symbolist history. Ms. Greene, in fact, selected only music performed during the original Salons—most famously, a work by Erik Satie written for the Rose+Croix.

‘The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort)’ (1893), by Jean Delville PHOTO: ROYAL MUSEUMS OF FINE ARTS, BELGIUM, BRUSSELS: J. GELEYNS-RO SCAN

‘The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort)’ (1893), by Jean Delville PHOTO: ROYAL MUSEUMS OF FINE ARTS, BELGIUM, BRUSSELS: J. GELEYNS-RO SCAN

And far from a dead end, the art of the Rose+Croix, and Symbolism in general, may lead more directly than one might assume into the art of the 20th century, especially in the development of pure abstraction. “The aesthetic quest of the R+C—to inspire through the new religion of art,” argues Ms. Greene, “was carried on by Vasily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian, all of whom were weaned on Symbolism and owed their theories of painting, in varying degrees, to the esoteric beliefs of Theosophy.”

So perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the exit of “Mystical Symbolism” leads directly onto the Guggenheim’s magical Kandinskys and Mondrians hanging on the rotunda walls.

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2017)

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2017)

THE NEW CRITERION, June 2017

Gallery Chronicle

On the 2017 Met Gala, “Frieze New York” & “TEFAF New York Spring.”

When it comes to the life of art, there may be nothing less gala than the Met Gala, or at least what this annual boondoggle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has become. The scandal of this year’s iteration should serve as a sobering wake-up call for the increasingly besotted priorities of too many American museums, including our greatest institutions.

If you have not heard of the Met Gala, do not worry. You were not invited. Since 1995, on the first Monday of every May, the Metropolitan has handed its keys over to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and the artistic director of Condé Nast. Here her purported aim has been to raise funds for the museum’s Costume Institute—I’m sorry, make that the “Anna Wintour Costume Center.” Her lording over the gala’s invite list has become notorious and the subject of a documentary called The First Monday in May.

Of course, the potential conflicts of interest that exist between Wintour’s commercial concerns and her museum trusteeship are blatant. The specter that she has conjured up with her gala has followed priorities far beyond fundraising and certainly beyond the realm of art. Along the way these extra-artistic interests have risen up from the Institute’s basement galleries to infect not only the museum’s spaces but also its institutional tenor, and by extension the tenor of American museums at large.

Tweet of an image from the 2017 Met Gala

Tweet of an image from the 2017 Met Gala

Like much else in the world of art, the Met Gala and the Costume Institute itself have become unrecognizable deformations from the Institute’s founding and the event’s inception in 1946. Consider that for nearly twenty years, from 1979 to 1995, the gala was helmed by the singular society doyenne Patricia Buckley. During this time the Institute mounted exhibitions such as “Fashions of the Hapsburg Era” (1979–1980), “Victorian Dress 1837–1877” (1988–1989), and “The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire” (1989–1990). The historical programming more than fit, so to speak, the seriousness of the institution that presented it.

The Wintour era has wrought, by contrast, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” and “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Even beyond its superficial, contemporary turn, Wintour’s Costume Institute has exposed the museum to the predations of celebrity culture. Worse still, the museum as a whole, a once-protected precinct of our cultural inheritance, has learned to revel in Hollywood’s demotic attention. “The Met is a place that you consider very very correct, very formal,” the fashion editor André Leon Talley explains in the Wintour documentary. “Anna has taken that out of the mix.”

Tweet from the 2017 Met Gala by Marc Jacobs

Tweet from the 2017 Met Gala by Marc Jacobs

The 2017 Met Gala became the apotheosis of this transformation. With the pop singer Katy Perry serving as the year’s honorary hostess, the hordes of bold-faced names, amply stocked with Jenners and Kardashians, marched up the museum’s Fifth Avenue steps and made a public mockery of the institution. “The celebrities were like animals . . . acting like they were at the Playboy Mansion!” one informant explained to Radar magazine. “Some didn’t even know it was a museum. They thought it was an event space with old stuff brought in to make it look like Egypt!” Many of the attendees, clearly uncertain of their surroundings, came to loiter in the museum restrooms. Here they sprawled out across the floors, spilled drinks, smoked cigarettes, and took “selfie” shots in the mirrors, which they disseminated through social media.

Some may perceive such spectacle as a tolerable distraction—even a welcome frivolity for an overly stuffy and off-putting institution. I fear the pantomime is far more anti-civilizational. It is a takeover—a commercial-grade, mass-culture affront to an institution held in disdain. Guarded by a phalanx of bodyguards, these latter-day vandals take barbarous license amidst the greatest artifacts of history. They smoke. They fornicate. They sprawl across the floors in mockery of the art around them, merely to focus on themselves. And all the while they record their debauchery on social media for millions of fanatics to emulate their cultural annihilation.

There have been many cringe-worthy moments during the reign of Thomas Campbell, the disgraced director of the Metropolitan Museum who departs this month. Perhaps the curator once dubbed “Tapestry Tom” thought he could take a major carpet ride to new money and popular adulation. Instead he opened the floodgates and drowned his institution in ridicule and debt while forsaking his scholars and curators. There should have been only one response for any proper museum steward to this year’s Met Gala: to sweep the trash out of the galleries, and to keep Wintour’s damage deposit with the suggestion never to return. Short of that, Anna Wintour’s Met Gala should be interred alongside Tom Campbell’s ignominious career.

Frieze New York. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Frieze New York. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

The sixth annual art fair known as Frieze New York opened on the same week as the Met’s inanities, but seemed a world apart.1 My first thought upon entering Frieze’s elevating, light-filled tent was how the value of seeing, as opposed to seducing, has been abdicated by many museums to be taken up by commercial galleries, which in turn increasingly coalesce around these quasi-institutional art fairs.

Six years ago I was bullish over the first stateside Frieze, a remarkable art encampment on New York’s Randall’s Island at the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers by the Hell Gate to Long Island Sound. The setting alone is a stunning retreat. Of course, many of us already know this island to be that which exists beneath the roadbed of the Triborough Bridge. There was a time I played after-school sports beneath its dingy overpasses, and I attended a grungy rock festival there in 1994. But one of the surprises of Frieze is how Randall’s Island has been recently transformed into a bucolic sanctuary in the heart of the city with flowering paths and woodpeckers tapping on trees. The first year I took a ferry there. More recently I walked across a footbridge from Manhattan.

Admittedly over the past few years I grew somewhat weary of Frieze’s formula of trendy, transposed eateries and art as lifestyle retreat, mixed with some showboating and the dumbing down of the art on view. Access to Frieze has become increasingly daunting, with inscrutable online directions, unreliable transportation, and the feeling during storms that the whole operation may become a runaway bouncy castle. But this year seemed different, at least once the clouds parted, and far less frivolous—a place set apart, and well engineered, for the contemplation of art in exile.

In 2012 the architecture firm SO-IL designed the Frieze tent from pre-fabricated rental components to snake along the edge of the Harlem River overlooking Manhattan for more than a quarter mile. Made of white translucent material, supplemented by minimal artificial illumination, its 225,000 square feet are awash in natural light. The visual effects can be uncanny, cooling colors and bathing both painting and sculpture in an indirect, northern-like light.

This year many of the two-hundred-plus galleries, brought together from thirty-one countries by Frieze’s London-based curatorial team, took best advantage of these light-filled surroundings not just to give us something to look at, but also something to see, with minimal labels and misdirection. Alexander Gray Associates, with a prominent booth by the southern entrance, singled out a late geometric abstraction by the painter Jack Tworkov called Triptych (Q3-75 #1) (1975), a contemplative fugue of gridded form and spontaneous brushwork. (This Chelsea gallery, it should be noted, is currently showing a survey of the artist Betty Parsons, a central figure of twentieth-century art better known for her singular dealership of the Abstract Expressionists.)

Sculpture by Carol Bove. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Sculpture by Carol Bove. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Both David Zwirner and Sculpture Center exhibited pas-de-deux sculptures by Carol Bove of scrap metals punctuated by urethane dots. The paintings of Henry Taylor were released from the circus of the Whitney Biennial to show to best effect at Blum & Poe. The Symbolist abstractions of Gabriel Lima were new to me at the Portuguese gallery Múrias Centeno. I liked the worn paint textures of Marina Rheingantz at the Brazilian gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, while the bold lines of James Nares’s abstractions at New York’s Paul Kasmin directed us to the American road. London’s October gallery testified to the modernist innovations of contemporary African art, especially Romuald Hazoumè’s Benin-style masks crafted from gasoline canisters.

There was some regrettable selfie bait, in particular Karl Holmqvist’s sign paintings at Gavin Brown’s “Enterprise” instructing fair-goers to “Hug a Hooker!” Yet these were anomalies in a fair that dedicated much of its real estate to its selection of “Spotlight” galleries exhibiting solo shows of work created exclusively in the last century, which included many of the best booths in the fair: Judith Linhares’s dreamscapes at San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert, Paul Feeley’s color-forms at New York’s Garth Greenan, and, in particular, Alfred Leslie’s stark portraiture at New York’s Bruce Silverman.

TEFAF New York Spring at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: TEFAF

TEFAF New York Spring at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: TEFAF

A depression in interest for European antiquities may say as much about the state of the European past as it does of the European economy. Founded nearly thirty years ago in Holland, TEFAF Maastricht has long been a preeminent art fair featuring an advertised “7,000 years of art history,” but one particularly known for its selection of Old Masters and antiquities. Looking to expand from Maastricht while educating an American collecting public that may know little beyond the latest Jeff Koons, TEFAF came stateside last fall with a fair that transformed the Park Avenue Armory into an ethereal treasury of art history.

I wish I could stay so enthusiastic for tefaf’s spring edition, which returned to the Armory over “Frieze Week” to exhibit ninety-three galleries showing modern and contemporary art and design.2

Booth at TEFAF New York Spring. Photo: TEFAF

Booth at TEFAF New York Spring. Photo: TEFAF

There were some highlights: the New York gallery Hans P. Kraus Jr., dealing in the “old masters of photography,” as always showed a remarkable selection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century prints. Bernard Goldberg featured scenes by Thomas Hart Benton from his “American Historical Epic” of 1924 through 1927. David Zwirner smartly positioned Josef Albers next to the equal (if not superior) work of his wife, Anni Albers. London’s James Butterwick offered a selection of Russian and Ukrainian modernists, and Lisson featured the Cuban-American painter Carmen Herrera, while Bergamin & Gomide focused on South American modernism.

But overall TEFAF New York Spring was a letdown, a largely directionless retread of other modern fairs underscored by an often garish arrangement of work. Once again TEFAF included jewelers and other such retailers in the mix, which gave its fair an aura of the international departures terminal “duty free.” The selection also leaned awkwardly towards postwar European painting, and I can only gather that a memo went out suggesting exhibitors display every sliced-up Lucio Fontana canvas in inventory, rendering the fair both a whodunit slasher and a vagina monologue. Perhaps there’s a future for TEFAF New York Spring. For now I will simply look forward to the opening of TEFAF’s next revelatory fall production of Old Masters.

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The Whitney's Identity Problem

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The Whitney's Identity Problem

THE NEW CRITERION, May 2017

The Whitney’s identity problem

On “Whitney Biennial 2017” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

It did not take long for “Whitney Biennial 2017” to go off the rails.1 Or so we might be led to believe.

The early headlines for this year’s survey, the museum’s seventy-eighth installment, and the first in its new downtown headquarters, were certainly laudatory. “Why the Whitney’s Humanist, Pro-Diversity Biennial Is a Revelation,” began Roberta Smith in The New York Times. “The 2017 Whitney Biennial Is the Most Politically Charged in Decades” and “the best of its kind in some time” purred Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. “All the Cool Kids Were at the 2017 Whitney Biennial x Tiffany & Co. Party,” Vogue declared. “Revelers sipped Moët & Chandon through paper straws with a Tiffany-blue swirl while taking in the volume of works spanning three floors.”

But then, seemingly overnight—and it was, in fact, overnight—the exhibition became embroiled in controversy. The object of attention was a small painting called Open Casket (2016), by the forty-year-old painter Dana Schutz. Depicting a figure with an unrecognizable face, wearing a dark suit with a gash cut through the built-up paint, the work, as we were informed by a wall label, was Schutz’s response “to a photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin.”

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2017, Oil on canvas. Photo: Dana Schutz / Petzel

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2017Oil on canvas.
Photo: Dana Schutz / Petzel

In 1955, Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old boy visiting Mississippi from Illinois, was infamously abducted, mutilated, lynched, and sunk in the Tallahatchie River by members of a white family, who had accused Till of whistling at a shopkeeper’s wife. For his funeral, Till’s mother requested an open casket to bear witness to the atrocity.

The murder of Emmett Till became a galvanizing event of the American civil rights movement. Yet at the Whitney Museum, the ire of protest was not directed at the perpetrators but at the artist who chose to depict the trauma. As early as the Biennial’s opening day, protesters had formed a human chain to block museum-goers from viewing the painting, writing “no lynch mob” and “black death spectacle” on their shirts. Soon thereafter, an artist named Hannah Black published an open letter to the museum’s curators and staff, co-signed by nearly fifty other writers and artists, “with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.” It continued—

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.

Since this controversy broke in March, the episode has transformed the Biennial from a mere recurring exhibition into a seemingly spontaneous flashpoint on issues of race and censorship. “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?,” wrote Roberta Smith in a return to the show. “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go,” replied the artist Coco Fusco on the website Hyperallergic. “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till,” ran a profile by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker. The View turned the episode into a topic of daytime talk-show conversation. Even the article you are reading now, I should acknowledge, is a consequence of the controversy.

Yet as the drama has evolved, I have come to see it, not as some unexpected rupture, but as a continuation of the Biennial’s supremely engineered and, to me, cynical public deployment. Drawing on its own identity-politicized history, what we are seeing now is a meta-Biennial, a self-conscious display designed to turn an exhibition of art into Entartete Kunst of demonstration and spectacle—an assembly both to trumpet institutional inclusivity and to fan the flames of discord and censorship.

This is not to suggest that Hannah Black, the petition writer, is indeed a “Russian plant,” as the critic and painter Walter Robinson (jokingly?) proposed at a roundtable discussion organized by the website “Artcritical.” I do not doubt the sincerity of her motivations, even if this British-born artist, who issued her proclamation from residence in Berlin, is a recent graduate of the Whitney’s own Independent Study Studio Program. Nor do I question the more local protesters’ commitment to a form of racialized fascism with their symbolic, at least for now, attacks on what they see as degenerate art, even if their attention came to focus with laser precision on a single painting within hours of opening. It would also be a step too far to suggest that the Whitney’s leadership calculated this particular contretemps—even if Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s new chief curator who oversaw the Biennial organizers Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, cut his teeth on a retrospective of the master showman Jeff Koons.

Yet you do not have to be a Biennial truther to see the false flags of an exhibition so concerned with its own aggrandizement, with an entire range of work geared for its provocative and thereby publicizing potential: a controversy in search of a cause; a trolling in search of a phish; a tail in search of a dog to wag. On the same floor as the Schutz painting, for example, there is an entire room dedicated to an eight-panel series by Frances Stark called Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial (2017). Anything if not direct, the work consists of canvases that are six and a half feet by eight and a half feet each, reproducing the pages of a 2015 book of the same title by the “punk musician, cult figure, and author.” Here the polemic begins “we need censorship” and concludes with the words, heavily underlined in Stark’s painting, “to stomp out the grotesque subliminal mind control and hate speech of modern culture, media, news, politics, and art. . . . Censorship until reeducation! Censor the state! Censorship now!!”

It could be argued that the extremity of such statements reveals their insincerity. But such insincerity can itself be insincere—and the book and the painting mean what they say. Radicalism is a joke until it isn’t, a pantomime of violence that rehearses the real thing. I suspect this work was selected precisely because it acts both ways, both as an object of expression and as an advocate of suppression—a work in protest of itself.

Viewers react to Real Violence by Jordan Wolfson. Photo: W Magazine

Viewers react to Real Violence by Jordan WolfsonPhoto: W Magazine

Something similar might be said for Real Violence (2017), a virtual-reality video by Jordan Wolfson. The resources that the Whitney deployed for the presentation of this one piece—four separate museum employees to warn and hand-hold visitors, and to keep those under seventeen years of age out—reflect the value placed in the high-tech work. Fitted with headsets, viewers are instructed to stand at a table and hold onto a railing as an urban street scene tumbles into view. For three minutes, the image of the artist may be seen beating another figure with a baseball bat and stomping him—an exceedingly explicit virtual reality that, we may only later learn, is accomplished through special effects.

“Wolfson is interested in violence as a rupture or distortion of our everyday consciousness,” we are informed by a wall label. Yet the extreme violence of the work calls out for its own suppression through our natural aversion to it. For added effect: a Chanukah prayer, which plays in the headphones during the beating, hints at Jewish culpability in the fictitious atrocity. It seems to serve no other purpose than to needle another identity group, which so far has not taken the bait.

Pope.L aka William Pope.L, Claim (Whitney Version), 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

Pope.L aka William Pope.L, Claim (Whitney Version), 2017Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

Such antagonism of identity is the sole purpose of a large sculpture by the artist named “Pope.L aka William Pope.L” called Claim (2017). Consisting of 2,755 slices of dripping, suppurating bologna pinned to a grid, “each slice has an image portrait of a purported Jewish person pasted to its center,” as Pope.L describes it in a document included in the work. In fact these images were collected with no regard for individual identity, as he goes on to explain, and were simply based on a calculation of the total number of Jews living in New York. Of course, the singling out of Jews has an evil history, and Pope.L hedges such finger-pointing with what you might infer from the inclusion of “baloney.” At the same time, the work operates through an aggression on its Jewish subject matter, with an overall effect that is decidedly not Kosher.

Henry Taylor, The 4th, 2012–17, and THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy Blum & Poe. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

Henry Taylor, The 4th, 2012–17and THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New YorkCourtesy Blum & Poe. Photo: Matthew Carasella.

The organizers of the 2017 Whitney Biennial know how to shuffle the deck of their political messaging. This survey of sixty-three individuals and collectives makes many claims but ultimately stands for nothing in particular but itself. It is an exposition of institutional clout more than an exhibition of works of art. The cacophony also drowns out the softer voices that have more than just one thing to say and the countless that are not included at all. I wish more attention would go to the elegiac videos of Maya Stovall, positioned just next to Schutz’s offending painting. Called “Liquor Store Theater,” the works consist of street interviews conducted in Detroit about the value of art and culture to local residents, with a pair of dancers spliced in the mix. The same could be said for Jo Baer’s paintings of prehistoric sites and rituals, where negative space is used to haunting, spectral effect. And finally I wish Henry Taylor’s powerful images of black life were receiving more attention than Schutz’s George-Condo-like confections, where Taylor’s expressive paint-handling and use of scale truly reflect the life, and death, of his subject matter.

No one atomized the salon radicalism we see in exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial better than Hilton Kramer. As he wrote in “The Age of the Avant-Garde,” his seminal essay of 1972, collected in his anthology of the same name:

The ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde—the mass media, the universities, the marketplace—only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ourselves.

At the Whitney, such avant-gardism is deployed in the service of the museum’s ever-growing interests. Those individuals who become exercised about its displays must realize their energies ultimately fan these institutional flames. “Black pain as raw material” has become the fuel for everything from Pepsi ads to museum memberships. At the Whitney the same might be said of the “courtesy of” lines on the wall labels that direct us to the blue-chip galleries out to peddle the art on view.

The real takeaway of the 2017 Biennial is that identity politics sells and has now been subsumed, alongside the old avant-garde, into the rhetoric of establishment culture. Perhaps this is why I have always been fascinated by the corporate sponsorship of this supposedly radical exhibition series. It used to be Philip Morris. This time the underwriters include J. P. Morgan, Sotheby’s, and Tiffany & Co. Private funding may be unremarkable on its own. But attached to the “challenging” art of the Biennial, such corporate underwriting must be more than a peripheral consideration. It is a primary concern, and explanation, of the true nature of what has become a sociological and largely extra-artistic enterprise.

1 “Whitney Biennial 2017” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on March 17 and remains on view through June 11, 2017.

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